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Easter Monday 1916: An Irish-British crew begin one of the greatest boat journeys ever

It was the last throw of the dice for Ernest Shackleton and his men, stranded at the end of the Earth.

1024px-LaunchingTheJamesCaird2 The launch of the James Caird Source: Frank Hurley

IRELAND HAS BEEN marking 100 years since the Easter Rising this weekend.

The first shots of the conflict rang out at around 1.15pm on Easter Monday 1916, less than an hour after the tricolour was raised at the Henry Street corner of the GPO.

On the same day, some 15,000km to the south, another momentous historical event was getting under way – as an Irish-British team led by Kildare-born Ernest Shackleton began what’s now considered one of the greatest small boat journeys of all time.

At the end of the world 

War was already breaking out in Europe as the crew of Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition left Plymouth in 1914 – but the explorer and his men had had no contact with the outside world for a year-and-a-half by the time the tiny ‘James Caird’ lifeboat set sail across raging southern seas on 24 April 1916 on a desperate rescue mission.

Shackleton and his 27 man crew had been stranded on a tiny island off the coast of Antarctica after their ship, the Endurance, was swallowed by the ice.

With five others, he set out to reach civilisation and raise the alarm.

The Voyage of the the James Caird (as it’s since come to be known) was the final throw of the dice for the men of the Endurance mission, if they ever wanted to see their loved ones again.

2 The crew of the Endurance pull lifeboats across the ice. Source: Royal Geographical Society

The Endurance 

Born into an Anglo-Irish family near Athy in 1874, Ernest Shackleton (later Sir Ernest) was one of the leading figures of the Heroic Age of Exploration.

By the time the Endurance expedition began, he was a veteran of the Antarctic having been on Scott’s Discovery expedition in 1901 and led his own journey south aboard the Nimrod seven years later, setting a record by coming closer to the South Pole than anyone before.

Norway’s Amundsen had reached the Pole in 1911 – followed weeks later by Britain’s Scott, who died on the way back. Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, therefore, had a new goal – the first-ever crossing of the Antarctic continent.

You may be somewhat familiar with what happened next; the story of how Shackleton kept his crew alive and masterminded their rescue mission has been told in books, plays and even a mini-series starring Kenneth Branagh.

The explorer and his crew were forced to abandon their ship after it was trapped and crushed by Antarctic ice. With no other options available, they undertook a perilous lifeboat trip to safety before setting up a makeshift camp on the tiny Elephant Island – on the edge of the continent.

end1 The Endurance, trapped in the Antarctic ice. Source: Royal Geographic Society

The open boat journey

Safe for the moment but with no way to get a message back to the outside world, a decision was made to re-fit the best of their surviving boats for the journey through the tempestuous Southern Ocean.

Ship’s carpenter Harry McNish, from Scotland, was tasked with raising the gunwales and fitting new decks fore and aft to improve the seaworthiness of the 22.5 foot craft.

And as they prepared for the off, Shackleton appointed expedition second-in-command Frank Wild as leader of the remaining party, with strict instructions to attempt another strike for civilisation the following spring if he didn’t return.

45 Ship's carpenter Harry McNish (left) and Ernest Shackleton. Source: Royal Geographical Society

Deciding who should crew the James Caird was the next step for Shackleton, but the first two names on his list more-or-less chose themselves: Tom Crean, from Kerry and by now a hugely experienced explorer in his own right, apparently “begged to go”; Frank Worsley, the captain of the Endurance, was a master navigator whose skills would be invaluable in the open seas.

English seaman John Vincent, Cork sailor Tim McCarthy and McNish, the carpenter, were chosen for the final places – the latter in spite of an act of insubordination back on the ice, which resulted in Shackleton threatening to have him shot.

‘Supreme strife’

Shackleton’s own account of the James Caird voyage underscores why it’s regarded as such an incredible sailing feat.

From his book ‘South’:

The tale of the next sixteen days is one of supreme strife amid heaving waters. The sub-Antarctic Ocean lived up to its evil winter reputation.

The men endured freezing conditions as they each manned the tiller for two hour stretches. Crew-members who were not on watch crawled into their sodden sleeping bags “but there was no comfort on the boat”.

Cramped in our narrow quarters and continually wet by the spray, we suffered severely from cold throughout the journey. We fought the seas and the winds and at the same time had a daily struggle to keep ourselves alive.

The men struggled on, all suffering terribly from the cold. On the tenth night – in what must have been an alarming turn of events – Worsley found he couldn’t straighten himself up after his turn at the tiller. The others had to drag him beneath the decking and massage his limbs before they could get him in a sleeping bag.

shutterstock_111864350 Source: Shutterstock/Zacarias Pereira da Mata

There was no let up from the conditions – or the drama – the following day.

Again, from Shackleton’s book:

“At midnight I was on the tiller and suddenly noticed a line of clear sky between the south and southwest. I called to the other men that the sky was clearing and then a moment later I realised that what I had seen was not a rift in the clouds but the white crest of an enormous wave.

“During twenty-six years’ experience of the ocean in all its moods I had not encountered a wave so gigantic. It was a mighty upheaval of the ocean, a thing quite apart from the big white-capped seas that had been our tireless enemies for many days.

“I shouted, ‘For God’s sake, hold on! It’s got us!’

“Then came a moment of suspense that seemed drawn out into hours. White surged the foam of the breaking sea around us. We felt our boat lifted and flung forward like a cork in breaking surf. We were in a seething chaos of tortured water; but somehow the boat lived through it, half full of water, sagging to the dead weight and shuddering under the blow.

“We baled with the energy of men fighting for life, flinging the water over the sides with every receptacle that came to our hands, and after ten minutes of uncertainty we felt the boat renew her life beneath us.

She floated again and ceased to lurch drunkenly as though dazed by the attack of the seas. Earnestly we hoped that never again would we encounter such a wave.

el South Georgia, the southern tip of Argentina and the Antarctic. Source: Google Maps

South Georgia 

Their epic ordeal finally came to an end on 10 May as the shattered crew collapsed ashore, pulling their creaking boat to safety in South Georgia’s King Haakon Bay.

Unfortunately for the exhausted men, the whaling station where they had been hoping to seek help was on the far side of the island. Leaving the others camped out with the boat, Shackleton, Crean and Worsley set out on foot to begin another never-before-attempted journey – traversing the island’s mountainous interior.

Accounts tell how Shackleton — then a world-famous figure — was unrecognisable when he showed up at the ‘Stromness’ station on the far side of South Georgia, covered in blubber-smoke, with long hair and beard.

A whaling boat – with Worsley on board – was dispatched straight away to pick up McCarthy, Vincent and McNish from the south of South Georgia, and soon all six were enjoying a hot meal back in civilisation (albeit in one of civilisation’s most remote outposts).

It took almost four months and two failed attempts before the Shackleton was able to mount a successful rescue operation, eventually reaching his stranded crewmen on Elephant Island aboard Chilean steam tug the Yelcho.

Remarkably, of the 28-strong crew who had set sail on the Endurance, he hadn’t lost a single man.

end Source: Royal Geographical Society

World War I

Returning home to an utterly changed world, many of the crew immediately entered active service in the First World War.

Of the two other Irishmen who undertook the incredible lifeboat journey with Shackleton, one – Tim McCarthy – was killed soon afterwards as his oil tanker came under fire in the North Atlantic, sinking with the loss of all hands.

Tom Crean’s navy posting kept him away from active service for the remainder of the conflict, and he retired to run a pub (the South Pole Inn - it’s still pouring pints today) in his native Anascaul, near Dingle.

crean1 Tom Crean aboard the Endurance Source: Frank Hurley

The Antarctic veteran kept a low profile in his later years – and as his biographer Michael Smith notes in the excellent ‘An Unsung Hero’ there may well have been good reason for his reluctance to seek publicity, aside from a natural humility.

The country was in a state of turmoil in the wake of partition and the Civil War, Smith observes, and “Crean was inevitably vulnerable in staunchly Republican Kerry because of his links with the British navy”.

There seems little doubt that the political tensions of the era prompted him to maintain a discreet silence about his remarkable feats.

Read: How do you tackle a HR crisis 1,300km from civilisation? Ask Ernest Shackleton

Read: Here’s what Ernest Shackleton and his crew were having for dinner, inching through the ice 100 years ago today…

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